Symbol in Syriac may be world's first question mark

Thu Jul 21, 2011 1:00pm EDT
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By Alice Baghdjian

LONDON (Reuters) - What could be the world's earliest example of a question mark has been identified in Classical Syriac manuscripts dating from the 5th Century.

The symbol, a double dot resembling the modern colon, is known as the "zagwa elaya," or "upper pair." Its function as a question mark was pinned down by Chip Coakley, a manuscript specialist at Cambridge University.

By studying the biblical manuscripts at the British Museum in London, Coakley was able to solve the mystery of the two dots, which has puzzled grammarians for decades, and described his finding as a "significant footnote in the history of writing."

"When you are sitting round a table reading a Syriac text with students, they ask all kinds of questions -- like what the heck does this or that dot mean -- and you want to be able to answer them," said Coakley.

"It's satisfying to have made sense of some of those weird dots."

Although the zagwa elaya is discussed in later grammatical tracts, it was not identified correctly, Coakley told Reuters.

"Later grammarians did talk about it but did not really know how it was used. They thought it indicated sarcasm or reproof, which turns out to only be partly true.

"I went back to the earliest manuscripts in the British Library to see how the zagwa elaya was used there. These were manuscripts later grammarians did not have access to."   Continued...